The recent launch of an indigenously developed cervical cancer vaccine, is poised to be gamechanger, as it could save the lives of millions of women.

Cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in females after breast cancer, is a major threat faced by women in India. Reports suggest that over 15 per cent of the total cervical cancer deaths in the world occur in India1 with one woman succumbing to cervical cancer every eight minutes.

These numbers reflect the grim reality, but a silver lining is that this statistic can be changed, as cervical cancer is a preventable and treatable disease.

HPV vaccine

One of the proven ways to prevent cervical cancer is the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. Cervical cancer is associated with Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, as the HPV virus is found in more than 90 per cent of cervical cancers. The HPV virus is considered to be the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. Certain types of the HPV virus can transform normal cervical cells into abnormal ones, and over a long period, some of these abnormal cells may then develop into cervical cancer. More than 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases can be attributed to two types of the virus, HPV-16 and HPV-18.

With HPV vaccines now available, vaccination against HPV is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Ideally, the vaccination should be administered at an early age, before sexual contact. Nevertheless, all women should take the vaccine, as it is not necessary that they would have contracted this virus only through sexual activity. The HPV vaccine covers the age group of 9-26 and can be given up to 45 years of age, if not adequately vaccinated when one was younger.3

Affordable price

Until now, the challenge faced in the widespread inoculation of the cervical cancer vaccine was the cost that ranges from Rs.2000 to Rs.3500 for the two available foreign-manufactured vaccines. This put the HPV vaccine out of reach for the majority of the Indian population. The prohibitive cost also prevented government programs to adopt the vaccine and include it in their outreach and prevention campaigns. This exposes the economically disadvantaged section of the population to the risk of cervical cancer and the resulting high out-of-pocket expenses that imposes immense financial hardship.4

Although vaccination and periodic screening are powerful tools for preventing cervical cancer, the lack of awareness about its prevention and unavailability in public health programmes puts teenagers and young adults at a higher risk of cervical cancer. A vaccine that protects women from cervical cancer would also help in preventing the devastating impact resulting from psychological and financial hardships.

The new vaccine CERVAVAC that would be manufactured in India, is to be priced in the range of Rs.200 to Rs.400 and it would be a game-changer and provide not just protection against cervical cancer but also protection against financial risk arising from the catastrophic health expenditure in treating cancer.The newly developed indigenous vaccine is a tetravalent recombinant HPV vaccine and protects from the risk of infection from four types of HPV (6, 11, 16, 18) and lowers the risk of genital warts and a few other types of cancers as well.

Better access

The affordable price of the indigenous vaccine will help to increase the accessibility of the vaccine and deliver crucial benefits in decreasing the incidence and fatality due to cancer. The vaccine priced at a tenth of the imported ones should be included in the National Immunisation Programme to increase its availability and reach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness about the powerful impact of mass immunization programmes. A similar mass immunization programme with the HPV vaccine will enable the elimination of the virus. According to the WHO, elimination of cervical cancer would require reaching an incidence rate of below four per 100,000 women and vaccinating 90 per cent of girls fully with the HPV vaccine by the age of 15, a key pillar in achieving that goal.5

A digital program similar to the one used for mass COVID vaccination can be used to roll out the vaccines targeting those vulnerable first i.e., young girls and boys in the age group 11-14 years and then to those in the higher age groups. Launching a mass awareness campaign and a free vaccine programme will ensure a higher rate of immunisation and it should be made available to everybody in the age range of 9-45 years.

Cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer. Cancers diagnosed in their later stages can also be treated through appropriate treatment and care. With a comprehensive approach to prevention through vaccination, screening, and treatment, we can aim to majorly reduce the risk of HPV causing cervical cancer along with its social and financial impact. The inclusion of the indigenous vaccine will also boost research and development in India for vaccines for other deadly diseases and help India in its battle against serious vaccine-preventable diseases.

Until now, cervical cancer has often been referred to as the ‘silent killer’ and being almost entirely preventable, it has been termed by many as a disease of inequity of access. Therefore, this vaccine shines bright as a milestone in providing a truly equitable pathway to access and contributing to saving countless lives!

The writer is Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals & Past President, NATHEALTH